Amazon forest fires: Policy lessons for India
For India and other South Asian countries, there are several policy options to be considered. First, there is no need to clear the forest by cutting or by burning to get extra land to grow more food to feed the growing population. The easier option is to stop the food waste so that existing food production itself can meet the needs of the growing population. About 30% of the food produced is wasted, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
“If you think that economy is more important than the ecology, try to hold your breath while counting your money.” That was famously said by Guy R. McPherson, an American professor known for his idea of Near-Term Human Extinction by 2030. More than 93,000 fires, at last count, are still raging, in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. These smouldering fires are dangerously holding the world’s breath, literally and figuratively.
Man’s indiscriminate destruction of nature for profits, by extracting freely available natural resources, is the key driver for the fatal fires. Capitalism in its extreme is not only threatening the existence of the planet’s green cover, it is becoming an existential threat to humanity that is thriving on the green natural assets. Fires in Amazon in July- August 2019 are up by more than 60% compared to last year, as per INPE, Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research.
Fires in the forest are known to occur from time immemorial. Nearly all of them are man-made, except few that are triggered by lightning. Then why are the 2019 Amazon fires different and why are they headlined all over the world? They are distinct due to their vast extent and accelerated spread, creating a new political trigger. They also offer important lessons for countries in South Asia, particularly India, Bhutan and Sri Lanka that have large forests and ambitious forest programmes and the desire to contribute to the Paris Climate Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals.
To understand the vastness of the Amazon rainforest, it is important to note that only six countries have an area larger than the Amazon rainforest. The 550 million hectares can easily accommodate one and a half Indias. Fires in the Amazon rainforest threaten the earth’s treasure of biodiversity in terms of millions of animal, plant and tree species apart from natives and tribals, who shelter under this massive green cover. More than 30 million people, including 350 indigenous and ethnic groups, live in the Amazon and depend on the forest for their food, clothing and even traditional medicines. But more than the vastness of the Amazon rainforest, the unique interdependency of its flora and fauna is supporting life in the forest. Due to the ability of its vegetation and land to purify the air (and water), it is called the “lungs of the planet”.
The devastating fires of the Amazon rainforest are raging when the planet is already climate-sick. Life-threatening impacts of climate crises, like unprecedented heatwaves, mammoth glaciers melting and fury of floods are being felt across the world like never before.
Simultaneously, key landmark reports of panels of the United Nations – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), Report on Land Degradation and Restoration and last month’s IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land have all sparked actions by citizens, including school children, who are on the streets protesting against governments and chiding their parents for inaction.
The Amazon rainforest captures 25% of the global carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by humans worldwide and converts it into green vegetation and enhances carbon capture in the soil. Forests thus act as a ‘carbon sink’ and reduce the impacts of climate change.
Forests are largely cleared for agriculture, speciality plantations like rubber and medicinal or exotic plants, livestock grazing or for producing vegetation for feeding live stocks, for mining, and for logging for use of wood for wood-products like furniture. Increased housing requirements and commercial buildings for human settlement are also reasons for clearing the forest. Burning, not cutting, the forest is the easiest and least costly option for such operations.
For India and other South Asian countries, there are several policy options to be considered. First, there is no need to clear the forest by cutting or by burning to get extra land to grow more food to feed the growing population. The easier option is to stop the food waste so that existing food production itself can meet the needs of the growing population. About 30% of the food produced is wasted, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization(FAO). Strong policies and awareness campaigns are needed to prevent food waste.
Second, policies and resources to convert degraded land to fertile soil are needed to meet the growing food demand. In the recent UN meeting to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), India’s Environment, Forests and Climate Change Minister Prakash Javadekar pledged to bring 5 million hectares of degraded land under cultivation.
Third, keep the forest land under ownership with native and tribal communities. Government should implement ownership laws through stronger and stricter methods. Those communities are the natural and sustainable protectors of the forest. The Indian Forest Act does include this provision. It should be strictly implemented.
Fourth, policies should strictly promote the concept that forests never be considered as an encumbrance for development. Forests are sustainable assets for people’s wellbeing and health. Mining activities need to be promoted by exploring the non-forest land only.
Fifth, cutting trees for wood-based products should be allowed only if those species are planted in the same area again for sustainability.
Sixth, there should be massive awareness programmes for the farmers on the disadvantages of slash-and-burn for post-harvest residue. The same can be used as natural fertiliser. The input cost to farmers would thus get reduced and farmers’ income would improve. It would also reduce air pollution and the risk of forest fires. Like ban on single use plastics, political leaders should also focus on prevention of slash-and-burn practices by farmers.
Lastly, the green economy, launched by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), assigns value to the eco-services provided by nature. It is calculated that annual value of the eco-services provided by the Amazon rainforest is around USD13 billion. Political leaders and the youth of India should be educated on the green economy and value of eco-services
Jeff Bezos took 25 years to accumulate the wealth of USD130 billion and became richest man on the earth for the e-services that he provides through his company Amazon.com Inc. The Amazon rainforest can accumulate such wealth through eco- services that it provides in just over 10 years.
The world needs to recognize and respect such eco-services provided by nature. Forest fires would then be things in the past.